Free newspapers in the United States : alive and kicking



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Free newspapers are a substantial segment of the newspaper industry, as well as an under-studied topic within media research. This dissertation considers the economic health of free newspapers and whether they face a dire future given their heavy reliance on advertising, a source of revenue that has been in decline for newspapers. Some industry observers suggest it is supreme folly for newspapers to give away their content for free, and that advertising is no longer a reliable revenue source for print media in the Internet era. One question guiding this research is whether free newspapers face two options: continue producing free content by relying on advertising (in addition to other revenue sources), or abandon the advertising-based business model. Seven research questions address a number of issues, such as whether free newspapers are profitable, if decision-makers are considering changing their business model, whether they are seeking alternative sources of revenue, whether reader engagement is connected to the price, or a lack of one, of a newspaper, and whether decision-makers are optimistic or pessimistic about the future of their industry. A Web-based survey asked decision-makers at free newspapers in the United States to respond to questions related to the health and future of their newspaper or newspapers. Four in-depth interviews with publishers of four different types of free newspapers in Texas were also conducted to complement results generated by the Web-based survey. Results show decision-makers at free newspapers are confident about the future of their particular kind of media. The dissertation concludes by suggesting free newspapers are not only viable but in many markets they are thriving. Sweeping generalizations (often seen in industry discourse) about the future of print newspapers can be misleading. The key for success is engaging readers with content and that means a focus on local issues and events. This study contributes a reality check and calls for further research on the economics of print media in the digital era.